Military Drones in U.S. Skies Could Pave Way for Thousands of Civilian Ones

Military bringing home unmanned drones from Iraq, Afghanistan to U.S. airspace.

By + More

The sense-and-avoid technologies show a lot of promise, he says, and will likely evolve to an extremely high level of accuracy. But they are not "ready for prime time right now."

There's a reason why the U.S. has the safest aircraft policies, he says, and those should not be degraded.

[MORE: Defense Contractor to Sell Unarmed Predator Drones to Foreign Countries]

"Everything the FAA does is focused on ensuring the safety of the nation's aviation system," according to a spokesperson with the FAA. "Developing and implementing new UAS standards and guidance is a long-term effort and is highly dependent on technological advances to help provide the see and avoid capability."

"The changes in policy that will accompany the advances in technology to allow the unmanned aircraft pilot on the ground to sense or see other aircraft, will permit greater access to the National Airspace System for all users; not just the military," says the FAA, which does not allow attribution to spokespeople by email.

Before the 2015 deadline Congress gave the FAA to study drones, the Army plans to test a ground-based "sense and avoid" on the MQ-1C Gray Eagle UAS at Ft. Hood, Texas in March 2014.

King estimates the military will be able to test an airborne sense and avoid system by 2017.

Drones are also met with reticence from some lawmakers who do not believe the proliferation of UAS in American skies should be inevitable. Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., made headlines in March when he staged an old-fashioned filibuster during John Brennan's nomination for CIA director. Paul demanded an answer from the Obama administration regarding U.S. policy toward fatal drone strikes against Americans on U.S. soil.

The Electronic Privacy Information Center has been one of the most vocal critics of the increased use of UAS by government and private organizations.

"When more drones are able to fly over the airspace, it's going to make aerial surveillance much easier to conduct," says Amie Stepanovich, director of EPIC's Domestic Surveillance Project.

[PHOTOS: Navy Launches First Drone From Aircraft Carrier]

"The problem with surveillance when it's easier and when it's cheaper is more of it takes places," she says. "We do see drones as being catalysts for more surveillance without additional protections in place."

Stepanovich supports the Department of Defense's involvement in resolving FAA policies toward drones, due largely to the military's extensive resources and experience with the issue. That will pave the way for a clearer discussion about protecting privacy, she says. "Specifically, when 2015 hits and the FAA is supposed to allow more of these vehicles in the airspace."

The military's use of UAS peaked in 2011 with almost 700,000 flight hours worldwide. This shrunk to just under 550,000 last year, and roughly 500,000 predicted for all of 2013. The Air Force has the highest usage, followed by the Army and the Navy and Marine Corps.

The military has five groups of UAS. The largest, Group 5, incorporates the RQ-4 Global Hawk and MQ-9 Reaper, both of which are roughly the size of a small manned plane and are designed to fly great distances. There are only 101 Reapers and 34 Global Hawks.

On the other end of the spectrum in Group 1 are the smaller UAS, such as the RQ-11 Raven and the Puma. These are designed to be lightweight and easily transportable, often used at the troop level for surveillance and reconnaissance. There are 1,137 Pumas and 7,680 Ravens, with which U.S. troops train foreign militaries.

In between are the mid-sized UAS such as the much-discussed Predator and RQ-7 Shadow.

[POLL: Americans Okay With Drone Strikes Overseas]

No matter their size or use, drones continue to catch national attention, which King attributes largely to that very word, particularly when used in media reports such as this one.

It creates "a very specific picture," he says: "The big killer airplanes that have absolutely no mind or thought process. They're spying on anything and everyone and before you know it fury is going to rain down from the skies."